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India presses on with internet regulations

Chinese-style censorship feared after government consults with tech giants

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. Today, his government is determined to regulate the internet.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India is finalizing rules that are to govern content on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other internet hangouts despite concerns that the new regulations are akin to Chinese-style censorship.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday said the government will hold extensive consultations with all stakeholders before the rules are formalized but insisted India will not compromise on data sovereignty.

Though he did not give a time frame for implementing the regulations, his statement shows the government will not bow to concerns raised by technology giants and rights groups.

In December, the government started public consultations on draft rules that are to regulate internet and social media companies. The proposed rules will require these platforms to remove "unlawful" content that impacts, among other things, the "sovereignty and integrity of India."

Public comments were accepted up until Feb. 14, and it is not known how they might affect the final law.

India's IT rules currently provide safe harbors to "intermediaries," including social media platforms. While social networks cannot be held liable for third-party content on their platforms, they are required to exercise due diligence and remove objectionable material within 36 hours of it being brought to their attention. The proposed rules seek to expand these entities' obligations by requiring them to remove unlawful content within 24 hours and to meet several other conditions.

Last year, social media users posted and forwarded fake videos and messages warning of strangers who belong to child-trafficking and organ-harvesting rings. The bogus information created an uproar and led to violent outbreaks in parts of the country.

Alongside inviting public comments, the government consulted with social media executives, big internet corporations like Google and Yahoo as well as industry bodies such as the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the Cellular Operators Association of India and the Internet Service Providers Association of India.

Some see the rules as a clampdown on the internet. "Do you want China-style restrictions on the way you can use the Internet? Neither do we," the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organization, said in a post on its website. "The changes proposed ... in the guise of safety, do just that. [They] curb your right to freedom of speech and to privacy."

On Jan. 31, Mozilla, Wikimedia Foundation and Microsoft-owned GitHub voiced deep concern over the government's plan.

"The current proposal takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the internet from an open platform for creation, collaboration, access to knowledge, and innovation to a tool of automated censorship and surveillance of its users," they said in a letter to Prasad.

On the same day, Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition -- whose members include Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Line and LinkedIn -- said in a statement the key provisions of the draft rules "fall short of India's legal precedents and laws around privacy and free speech."

The Indian government remains undaunted by such opposition. "I don't get bothered by the uncalled-for campaigns," Prasad was quoted as saying on Feb. 20. "We'll be fair, we'll be objective, but our sovereign right to frame rules and laws will always be there."

The information technology minister also asserted that social media providers will not be allowed to abuse the data of Indian citizens to influence elections due by May.

Meanwhile, internet companies themselves are trying to curb the spread of rumors and fake news.

On Thursday, Google said it will train journalists covering the elections on how to conduct online verification, check facts and carry out other tasks. The announcement came two days after Twitter, which is facing allegations of suppressing right-wing voices in India, said it is tightening its political ads policy ahead of the elections.

According to government data, India's digital infrastructure includes 1.21 billion mobile phones, of which 450 million are smartphones. It has about 500 million internet subscribers, and its optical fiber network reaches 250,000 village clusters.

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